It was fascinating to see the neighbourhood planning system descend into chaos in Bermondsey this week.
The carefully constructed federal system of the original Frontrunner, the Bermondsey Neighbourhood Forum, was undermined as two of its 30 or so constituent local community groups, one a group of wealthy owner occupiers at one end of the 23,000 population (one square mile) area and the other a group of predominantly social renting tenants from the other end, both Nimby in character, sought to break away and declare UDI.
This all happened at a meeting to seek a resolution of the earlier fissure over competing boundary applications between the developer led, but fervently anti-development, Bermondsey Village Action Group (a recent unsuccessful promoter of a JR against the planning decision on Network Rail’s redevelopment if London Bridge station) and the Bermondsey Neighbourhood Forum.
The meeting apparently arose after neighbourhood planning suddenly and unexpectedly became a political football between LibDem and Labour in the adjoining Bankside area (and the LibDems are still running a parishing campaign in the wider area although this doesn’t currently seem to have much legs).
In a further twist one neighbouring, small business only, organisation had also made a land grab for a huge swathe of the original area and was entertained at the council convened meeting despite not having made an area designation application or indeed being constituted in a way that would allow it to become a neighbourhood forum (which also appeared to be the case with the two organisations declaring UDI).
There are a number of fundamental problems here. The main one is that the council has neither the people nor the skills to resource these issues adequately in the current fiscal environment.
Also the issue of boundaries was played out in the emotion of NIMBYism, conflicting personalities and warring factions rather than the rationality of sensible planning boundaries (the BNF proposed area closely matched the council’s originally proposed Area Action Plan area).
It is clear that the process of educating citizens on neighbourhood planning still has a huge way to go.
No one mentioned the main issues which were that a small anti-development group would be unlikely to produce an NPPF/London Plan/LBS Core Strategy compliant plan and would be unlikely to be able to spend effectively the vast sums of CIL which will accrue to the neighbourhood forum in this area of immense development pressure.
The voices calling for collaboration, including one of the local councillors, were drowned out by the power hungry who had, probably unrepresentatively, packed the meeting.
It was clear that two kinds of tactics, Nimby hectoring and political organisation, were effective to a degree. It was fascinating to see the unwillingness of local groups to share or cede their new, poorly understood, power and responsibility and also to see the patchwork quilt of proposed neighbourhood plans coalescing across the wider area.
Some of the local groups, generally the better governed and informed ones like the Bermondsey Street Area Partnership that has been in existence for years and the main local tenant management organisation the Leathermarket JMB, looked on aghast at the possibility that one of the competing groups could effectively divide their neighbourhood (their single high street and their estates) in two.
On the positive side there are now applications for neighbourhood plan areas covering every inch of the surrounding area with the real potential emerging for 100% coverage and an increasing number of people professing to have the energy and enthusiasm to produce a plan.
Whether these organisations will actually have the capacity to produce neighbourhood plans seems much more questionable, even with the help of newly appointed Locality and RTPI Planning Aid as the government’s new single provider of enabling services to replace the first failed contracts.
The new contract will need to both inform local communities about how to make a plan but also provide them with practical and financial help to put the plan in place.
Separately while I was in Bristol this week, it was good to see the Redcliffe Futures neighbourhood plan group in Bristol out and about in offices, old peoples lunch clubs, with school kids and on the street in the freezing cold consulting with the community. Making local plans is hard work.
Redcliffe is a great antidote to Bermondsey. It is well run and therefore effective and is getting on with the job as have been the other neighbourhood planning groups that are starting to deliver completed plans around the country. These are coming not a minute too soon as it is becoming clear that developers are seeking to take advantage of the time window without plans to get their permissions in place.
The role of the local authority is invidious in the situation where there is a boundary argument and there will be anti-neighbourhood planning planners around the place (including a senior academic I met this week) muttering I told you so at the chaos and delay that is ensuing.
And the delay to neighbourhood plan delivery is massive and in the meantime huge planning applications are having to be determined.
In Bermondsey the conspiracy theorists are having a field day and believe that the council is deliberately fuelling this process in order to allow it to continue to take CIL (formerly s106) from the north of the borough to the marginal wards in the middle.
It’s clear that in urban areas size matters when it comes to neighbourhood plan areas. Too small and the 25% CIL receipt won’t be able to be spent in the area. Too large and some groups will feel disempowered and want to declare UDI.
The other issue that is floating around Bermondsey is that of business neighbourhoods. This is something of a misnomer in that it is simply a designation that means two referenda (one for the residents and one for the businesses) are required. If businesses exist in any area they need to be able to be involved in the neighbourhood forum.
However the bar for having two referenda is set quite high with the legislation requiring a test of ‘wholly or predominantly business in nature’.
The horrendously complex and expensive challenge of setting up and running a business referendum seems certain to persuade local authorities to avoid this route unless the businesses fund the extra costs.
In Bermondsey however the council report has suggested that both competing areas pass this test. It is likely that this decision is open to legal challenge as it stands given the relatively small part of the Bermondsey Neighbourhood Forum area that is predominantly business.
This raises questions about the motivation of Team London Bridge, the local BID that bizarrely decided to object to the application that they were previously supporting.
So what happens next in Bermondsey?
The meeting recommended the further negotiation of boundaries between groups, this will lead to a change to the proposed boundaries and may lead to some of the applications being rejected by the local authority, the new boundaries may need a further six week consultation and presumably a reconsideration of the business area designation.
Then the fun really begins because groups will then compete to become the forum for the areas the council determines.
These groups are not, for the most part, democratic. They have very small memberships (in comparison to the electorates and none of them yet include any of the ward councillors (a requirement of the legislation which therefore gives ward councillors considerable power over the process where there is conflict). The competing groups also include groups that limit who can join, are federal or are autocratic.
Achieving large memberships is not necessary legally but smaller groups may not achieve community wide engagement and referenda apathy in these situations could see special interest groups squeeze through some strange policies. In any event the vast majority of sensible people do not wish to waste their time in petty infighting and bureaucratic niceties and it is clear that this infighting has drained a number of the groups of energy.
The council’s Wisdom of Solomon will no doubt be called into play again.
In the meantime CIL will leak out of the neighbourhood and the wishes of the majority of local people for their area are frustrated.
The passion of the people displayed at this week’s meeting suggests that neighbourhood plans are a good thing. The practicality of achieving sensible neighbourhood areas (sensible in both planning terms and in terms of neighbourhood identity) seems hugely challenging in dense urban areas. It looks like it requires early active leadership by local councillors. Something that has been lacking in Bermondsey partly because the early forum set its face against councillor representation given the inherent conflict of interest between their neighbourhood and borough roles, the historic perceived irrelevance of the so called community councils and the fundamental conflicts between the local population and council decisions.
The legal position was subsequently overturned as the Localism Bill passed through Parliament and the political class spotted the danger of losing their control on power. Forums now have to have councillors in their number which means that they have huge influence where there are competing groups.
So Bermondsey presents a fascinating exhibition of the pitfalls of the neighbourhood planning in action.
I’m still optimistic thanks to places like Redcliffe in Bristol but we need to do everything we can to preserve people’s energy for making the plan and not waste it fighting petty battles.
Alternatively we could go for the latest proposal from the Policy Exchange which is a rehash of Tim Leunig’s plan for scrapping the current planning system and going for a system of planning permission auctions.
In their proposal, there would be no neighbourhood plan and land owners would offer to sell green field land to local authorities who would buy the cheapest fields and then divide them into plots and sell them for Custom Build.
Policy Exchange anticipate 100,000 extra homes in the first year! Unfortunately their knowledge of Custom Build delivery is non-existent.
As usual it is easy to ridicule the proposal but the point about Custom Build producing much better designed homes is valid although PE’s assumption that the housebuilding industry will up their design game as a result doesn’t seem to be borne out by the evidence. The great Custom Build neighbourhood of Homeruskwartier in Almere is surrounded by house builder rubbish which looks even worse by comparison.
More importantly the point that imposition of development by developments via appeal will produce huge NIMBY opposition is key.